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High Water, Higher Stoke: The 11th Annual New Haven Ledges Race

Full disclosure: OGE is a sponsor of this event.

With skiing and winter in the rear view mirror, the outdoor enthusiast must shift to other pursuits—like whitewater kayaking—to get their adrenaline fix.

For 11 years now, the beginning of April has seen whitewater kayakers from as far as Alaska and Idaho flocking to Bristol, Vermont for the annual New Haven Ledges Race, an event that sets the tone for a paddler’s spring. With the Northeast’s whitewater being highly dependent on snowmelt, the season doesn’t last too long, so when the community can come together and enjoy some great quality whitewater and excellent seasonal weather, the people show up.

This year, though most paddlers used the week running up to the race to practice their lines for consistency, Mother Nature, as always, had a way of shaking things up: The water literally doubled in size the night before the race, making an already challenging section of water even rowdier.

The spring weather on the east coast is variable—to say the least—but race day saw the paddles align with 60° temperatures, sunny skies, and even more frigid snowmelt—highlighting the necessity of dry-suits. As registration came to a close, 56 stoked paddlers stood ready to pit themselves against each other and the clock. The rules of the New Haven Race are simple: You have two runs, so make ’em count. Paddle as fast as you can from top to bottom. Have a clean line, and try not to swim.

Paddlers gathered during the New Haven Race registration period

Paddlers milling about during registration. Discussion ranged from how many beers they will drink after to what line looked the fastest.

For an hour before the safety meeting, paddlers spent their time on the steep banks planning their lines, visualizing which would be the fastest.

A kayaker scouts a whitewater line before her runs

Jesse Sterling of Boston, MA scouting her best line.

Paddler safety is the obvious focal point during these events. The staff, safety boaters, and paramedics all did a top notch job making sure the race went smoothly, and with Mother Nature dictating how some runs went, being safe was all some paddlers could hope to do.

A group of New Haven Race participants gathered at the organizer's tent to listen to the safety briefing

All business and all ears for the safety briefing.

The paddlers were broken up by bib number and split into two heats for each run. While the first batch of paddlers went, the second batch set safety. The nerves were high through the first run, with paddlers constantly muttering things like, “Should’ve gone around here,” or, “Could’ve been cleaner or faster there.” The first run was more of a fast preamble to a (hopefully faster) second run.

Two members of the safety team stand on the riverbank with throw bags at the ready for whitewater paddlers in distress

The safety teams were set up at main features along the entire course. Throw bags were used as the main tool of retrieving boats or paddlers.

The start gate made for a super fun entrance to paddlers’ runs, shooting them at the perfect angle to catch the diagonal current that would start their quick mile-long descent of continuous class 4 rapids.

A paddler launches out off the wooden ramp lined with astroturf and plastic skirting that serves as the start gate

Plastic Fence + Turf + Stoke = Perfect start ramp.

At a time trial event like the New Haven Race, paddlers can sometimes run into what is known in the whitewater world as carnage or beatering—sub-optimal runs where things just don’t go their way. One good example of carnage is getting held in a hole, which is sort of like going through the spin cycle in a super-cold washing machine:

A paddler trapped in a hole during their run and surfing, which added 30 seconds to their race time.

For size, thats a 9 foot boat! This was about a 30 second surf before being spit out to the bottom of the frame.

Another good example is taking a swim over the famed (infamous?) Toaster Falls:

A paddler holds on to his capsized kayak as he approaches Toaster Falls during his run of the New Haven Race

This was scary to watch, and for the paddler to swim. Very gnarly.

A kayak run aground on the river bank after its paddler was ejected during the race.

When you are glad it’s the boat and not the person. This casual reminder to paddle safe brought to you by ROCKS.

Carnage at a race like the New Haven Ledges comes with the territory; whitewater of this difficulty exists to remind you to always paddle smart. Mother nature is a big part of paddling, any time you go. Lines taken ebbed and flowed by the choice of each paddler; most major decisions came with the aim of making the slower sections faster. With less pushy or funneled options after the first half of the rapids, the water then breaks into two thinner sections.

A paddler in a yellow kayak getting funneled and shot out of the hole feature just before Toaster Falls.

Paddler getting funneled and shot out of the hole feature before the falls.

Directly in the middle of the next section, there is a large hole that only became more sticky as the water levels continued to rise throughout race day. How the racers entered and exited it was important. If they kept it clean they were lined up, and if they weren’t clean, it would throw them off line for the last drop of the race: About 35 yards beyond the hole, the horizon line drops off into the steepest feature of the rapid, Toaster Falls—a waterfall with a height of 20 feet in some sections along its rim. The paddlers had this last obstacle before a dead, tiring sprint to the buoy hung in the middle of the water. Once a paddle struck the buoy with their paddle, boat or body, their time was finished and recorded.

A paddler headed into the final sprint of the race after exiting Toaster Falls.

Headed into the final slower stretch before the falls.

Toaster Falls was for sure the biggest feature, and the most visually striking for the folks watching. The line choice on toaster falls also made a big impression on times at the end of the race. When watching from below, you saw two main choices, both with their pros and cons:

A paddler choosing one of two lines over the final obstacle of the New Haven Race, Toaster Falls.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe. Which one?

With more water comes more power, so when a paddler took the far right option (the most used line), a rock under the surface would launch the boat into a flatter and more diagonal arc. This was of course faster, but harder to control once they landed in the swirling and bubbling water below. The other option was the middle line choice, with less water, less power, and more of a pencil dive approach. The paddlers who chose this option also had a more vertical drop, which allowed for more room to make an error—and since it was already the slower option, they had to get it right or lose time.

A paddler executing the first option over Toaster Falls perfectly and casting a far out line from the drop.

A perfectly executed Option 1. Casting a super far out line from the drop.

A paddler using option 2 to go over Toaster Falls during their second run of the New Haven Race.

Same paddler, giving option 2 a go.

When all paddlers had completed this entire rapid at their most rapid pace (heh) they were totally gassed out. How long did the entire journey take? The fastest times ranged from 1 minute 30 seconds to just under 2 minutes. The “slower times” maxed out at almost 4 minutes.

When all was said and done, the times were tallied and the winners were crowned. It was a showcase of great paddling skill. At the end of the day the real winners, for the 11th time, was the community. If it wasn’t for event organizer Ryan McCall, race volunteers, safety boaters, Vermont Paddlers Club, or any of the sponsors, this community would not have its race! Year after year, for faces new and old and from far and wide, the New Haven Ledges Race stands as one of the most hyped and rooted east coast paddling events of the year!

Shout out once more to the event sponsors: American Whitewater, American Canoe AssociationVermont Paddlers Club, Liquid Logic Kayaks, Astral, Shred Ready, Orion Coolers, Otter Creek Brewing, Immersion Research, Mountain KhakisKayak Detail, Watershed Drybags, WRSI, NRS, HB Laser Engraving, Stohlquist, and Werner Paddles.

Come on out next year, bring your cold weather gear. If you want to spectate this awesome event, bring the dogs, the kids, some beers and have a day out there! See yah next year.

Update 4/18/19: The original version of this article stated that a paddler who swam over Toaster Falls sustained a concussion. This was a reporting error—the paddler sustained no injuries, and we apologize for the mistake. We’ve also added a shout out to the people and organizations that make the New Haven Ledges Race possible: they’re the real MVPs.

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Published:April 17, 2019

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